Fiction: Luster, or Doing the Lambent Walk

By

Harlan Yarbrough

 

 

Sometimes, Jared saw light in a funny way.  Not funny, exactly, but strange, different. The first time it happened, in a bi-lingual mathematics class, Jared worried and wondered, Omigosh, am I having a stroke?

The sensations Jared experienced weren’t caused by a stroke but by another mechanism, maybe not entirely different and not at all understood. In those first years, Jared didn’t know that. He knew only that light sometimes looked strange, behaved strangely. The experience involved no pain and, except that it frightened him, wasn’t unpleasant.

Over a period of three years, Jared consulted two doctors, two university libraries and Uncle Google and learned that nobody really knew what caused his strange visual effects. Medical practitioners called them ocular migraines or ophthalmic migraines or retinal migraines or eye migraines or migraines with an aura, but he never experienced anything even remotely suggestive of a headache or other illness along with the visual effects.

Twenty-six months passed between the first two episodes, another twenty-two before the third. After six years, Jared’s unusual relationship with light had visited him only four times. By then, the experience had become less frightening, and Jared had become one of the world’s foremost authorities on the phenomenon—which wasn’t difficult, because the bar was set rather low. Except for observations of his own experiences and a couple of interviews with other “sufferers”, Jared engaged only in secondary research. Even so, two papers he wrote were accepted by peer-reviewed scientific journals—which made him a high achiever among high school science teachers.

Leading authority or not, Jared didn’t know the cause of the phenomenon, nor did anyone else. Some researchers blame a slight constriction of blood vessels in the lateral geniculate nucleus or maybe in the superchiasmatic nuclei or elsewhere in the region of the pulvinar at the back of the thalamus or perhaps in the superior colliculi or in the visual (or striate) cortex. Others say the symptoms are possibly caused by spasms in blood vessels in the retina. Still others suggest a viral infection might activate the immune system and thereby produce antibodies that would induce an aseptic inflammation of the leptomeningeal vasculature.

After seven years and five episodes, Jared’s observations confirmed that the color and texture of the auras varied from one individual or object to another. When Jared began to concentrate on the differences, he realized that some felt or seemed positive while others felt distinctly negative.

One afternoon, Jared’s light show came to call while he taught a rough group of mostly able but badly behaved sixteen-year-olds. The light illuminating one particular rucksack caught Jared’s attention. The aura-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it looked particularly jagged and ugly and left Jared feeling downright uncomfortable—enough so that he ‘phoned the office and requested a visit from a member of the senior management team, ‘though without saying precisely why. When the vice-principal arrived, he inspected the bag and confiscated a wicked-looking knife before marching the student to the office.

Similarly, Jared began to notice that the halos surrounding people, including his students, while changing somewhat from one time to another, tended to look or feel pretty consistent overall for each individual. One episode occurred on a day when Paul Morrow behaved unusually well, but his aura remained rough and ugly and somehow violent. Jared learned the next morning that Paul had punched another student later that day in a different class.

Days like that made Jared begin to wonder whether his ‘visitations’ revealed something real but usually unseen or just amounted to a form of oneirism. His wondering increased after he noticed his ocular visitor consistently put a soft, gentle, and sad halo around Palmer Oratoria, consistently one of the most aggressive and disruptive students. A hunch based on that consistency led Jared to keep Palmer after class one day.

“You aren’t in any special trouble. I just felt worried about you and wanted to find out if I could help.”

“You can’t.”

“Well, OK, maybe not. But something’s bugging you, something’s got you upset, something’s gnawing at your guts.”

“Naww, I’m fine.”

A few more minutes like that seemed to be going nowhere, until Jared saw a tear trickle down the usually macho Palmer’s cheek. Jared gave no indication that he even noticed the tear, but he said, “It doesn’t cost anything to tell me. If you’re in trouble or something, maybe I can help. Even if I can’t, I’m not going to narc.”

“It isn’t like that.”

“OK, OK, but something’s getting to you. You don’t have to tell me about it, but if you want to I’ll listen.”

They seemed stalled for another few minutes, when Palmer burst out with, “My mom’s dying, OK? What are you going to do about that?”

“Shit!  Oops!  I’m not supposed to say that, but . . . Hell, Palmer, that’s more than rough. That’s more than any kid—”

“I’m not a kid.”

“Fair enough. But that’s more than any teenager should ever have to handle. That sucks.”

Palmer nodded, and Jared could barely hear his “Yeah.”

They talked for another ten minutes before Palmer asked, “Can I go?”

“Yes, of course, man.”

“You’re not gonna tell anybody.”

“Not unless you say it’s OK. I’d like to tell Mrs. Romero, but only if you say so.”

“She can’t do anything.”

“She can’t save your mom, I guess none of us can, but she might be able to make things a little easier for you. Tha—”

“I don’t want any favors.”

“Yeah, OK. But, you know, she can get your other teachers to cut you some slack, when you’re having a hard time.”

“Don’t need it.”

“OK, no problem. I won’t say anything to anybody. You can always let me know, if you change your mind.”

 

Evelyn Romero, the school’s counsellor, remained blissfully ignorant for three more days. On that later day, accompanied by no visual effects, Palmer lingered a moment after class and said, “It’s OK if you tell Mrs. R.”

Jared wasted no time delivering the news to Mrs. Romero along with an admonition not to broadcast it widely. Fortunately, she was professional, competent, and discreet and managed to help Palmer over several rough patches in that horrible year.

Palmer did not suddenly become a model student, but his behaviour—and even his academic performance—improved markedly after his talk with Jared.  Palmer never thanked his teacher for his concern or his help but did treat Jared with more respect.

In two different classes a year apart, separate episodes showed Jared a soft and somehow fluffy or fuzzy pink aura around Tania Midgely, a good student and an exceptionally beautiful girl. After the second episode, Jared began observing her behavior more closely and deduced she had a crush on him. From that day forward, he always made sure they were never in a room alone together. Not that he didn’t find Tania attractive—he did, but he was married and also had a strong commitment to professional rectitude.

A scientist by nature and by training and a science and mathematics teacher by vocation, Jared found himself dithering about whether to trust the auras, which had consistently proved accurate, or his day-to-day observations, which seemed more rational. He suspected his episodes’ insights displayed subconscious knowledge gleaned from observations carried out by his ordinary senses, but he still wondered.

In particular, Jared wondered about the aura he saw surrounding his wife those few times an episode had struck him in her presence. Her aura consistently appeared blue and…uncomfortable—as if she didn’t feel comfortable in his presence. What does that mean? he wondered…if anything.

Jared worried about Inga and about their relationship but never felt able to extract any useful information from whatever his light show episodes revealed about her. With nothing to go on, he just continued doing the best he could for her and for his students.

 

By the time Jared’s wife had decamped for her native Netherlands, Tania Midgely had been graduated and had left the area—to enlist in the Army, to Jared’s disappointment. That girl should have gone to a university, he thought. His current 131 students required his immediate help, however, so thoughts of Tania didn’t last long. A couple of times he wondered, Would I have quit teaching and courted her? Should I have quit teaching and courted her? But his current students’ needs demanded his attention and soon banished such thoughts.

Eleven years after Jared’s first episode, the light shows seemed to have settled into an almost annual frequency. He wondered if he could call them up voluntarily but didn’t experiment, because they still frightened him. Even so, he was happy to use the insights they provided, even if they were simply subconscious manifestations of phenomena he had already observed.

Most of what the episodes—or his interpretation of them—gave him was mundane and low-key. A couple of dramatic exceptions increased the worth of Jared’s experiences in his estimation. In one, he disarmed a student, whose aura seemed sad but peaceful, who displayed a knife on the athletic field. In the other, he ducked a punch from another teacher, whose aura looked distinctly ugly and violent. Fortunately, several students saw Jake, the other teacher, take a swing at Jared, which led to Jake’s getting fired. Mostly, Jared’s visual episodes, or his use of them, just helped him make small adjustments to improve his responses to his students’ needs—which suited him just fine.

One day five years after Tania Midgely enlisted, Jared encountered her, while they were both shopping at the local supermarket. For the first time since he’d begun experiencing his light phenomena, Jared wished he could summon an episode voluntarily.

Jared had seen Tania only once since her graduation, when she had come back to town, in uniform and with her hair cut quite short, on leave after she completed her basic training.  When he met her in the supermarket, she wore civilian clothes and her light blonde hair rested on her shoulders again.

“I’m glad you’re back in the area,” Jared said. “I missed you.”

“Whoa!” Tania responded. “I didn’t think you ever noticed me.”

“How could I— How could any man not notice you?”

“If you’d said that five years ago, I’d’ve jumped on you like a dog on a bone. But I could never get you alone anywhere. I had the worst crush on you.”

“I know.”

“What!? How could  you know what I was feeling?”

Jared explained about the auras or oneirism or whatever-they-were, but Tania interrupted him. “What!?” she said again. “You’re a science teacher. How could you believe that crap?”

Jared pointed out that he didn’t believe anything but simply made observations and used them. “We all see and hear things we aren’t consciously aware of,” he said.  The memories are still in there, though. I suspect I’m just projecting subconscious ideas based on those memories. I don’t think there’s anything magical going on.”

“That makes some sense, at least. Y’had me worried.”

“Nahh. Don’t worry. I’m still a scientist by constitution as well as training. But I do feel sad you used the past tense.”

“Huh?”

“When you said you ‘had the worst crush’.” I guess I was hoping you still did.”

“That’s sweet. That was a schoolgirl crush, y’know? I’m a different person now.”

“A soldier.”

“Not anymore. No, it’s just that I’ve…what…grown up? I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot in the past five years, some good but a lot of it ugly, and I guess that just changes a person.”

“Mmmm…yeah.  I wonder. I mean, I don’t know if it can change who you are, you know, fundamentally, as a person, but I guess it can change your perception of things.”

“Yeah, that sounds right,” Tania said with a nod and a little smile.

Worrying that Tania might take offence, Jared hesitated, then said, “Anyway, you’re still one of the most attractive women I’ve ever met—not just physically, ‘though that, too—so if you ever want to explore a relationship other than a student-teacher—”

“Or ex-student, ex-teacher,” Tania interjected with a chuckle.

“Yes, or ex-student, ex-teacher,” Jared resumed, “I’d be glad to explore with you.”

“But you’re married!”

“Inga’s been back in The Netherlands for two years. Conveniently, the final papers came through last month, so I’m officially not married.”

“Awww…that’s sad.” Tania paused, then said, “Isn’t it?”

“I was sad at first, but we weren’t all that compatible. I guess she was never really happy here, always missed her family and childhood home. And now that you’re back in the area—are you back in the area?—it doesn’t seem sad at all.”

“Ooh! What a smooth-talking bastard!” Tania said with a giggle. “I don’t know if I’m back to stay. I’d like to, but I’d also like to finish my degree.”

“Did you start one?”

“Yes, the Army paid for me to do a two year diploma—Associate’s Degree, they called it, but it isn’t really a degree—in para-legal.”

“Cool!”

“Yeah, it saves me the cost of two years of college.”

“And the time.”

“Yes.”

“But you’re here now,” Jared said, “so can I take you out to dinner tonight.”

“Not tonight,” Tania replied. “I already promised Mom and Dad I’d make dinner for them. That’s why I’m in here.”

“How about tomorrow? Want to go hiking while the good weather holds? No heavy backpacks or rifles to carry.”

Tania laughed and said, “That sounds great. D’you know my dad? Anyway, his name’s Ed; he’s in the ‘phone book. Give me a ring later, and we’ll work out the details.”

As they walked up a mountain trail the next morning, Jared saw everything—except Tania—bathed in a light green glow. He enjoyed the walk and the conversation but wrestled internally with the question of whether the fluffy pink halo around Tania meant anything or was just a projection of his wishful thinking. Or does it even matter? he wondered.

 

 

 

 

 

Harlan Yarbrough

Although I began writing short stories only sixteen months ago, I have been a published writer since the ’80s. For nearly a decade, I wrote a syndicated newspaper column on the English language. Also, for twelve years,  I wrote a regular column, reviews, and feature articles for The Broadside, a national music and arts magazine. My short fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Degenerate Literature, and other periodicals.

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